Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind person to reach the summit of Mount Everest, is on a mission to get other would-be adventurers with disabilities to see what’s possible
Author Buddy Levy
FOR WEIHENMAYER, Via Ferrata is a cakewalk. He’s one of just a few hundred people to have climbed the Seven Summits—the highest peak on each of the seven continents. In 2001, he became the first blind person to conquer Mount Everest, which landed him on the cover of Time. And at 45 years old, he’s not finished yet. At the moment, he’s training to solo-kayak the Grand Canyon—226 miles of some of the most dangerous whitewater rapids in the world. Even Weihenmayer is a little daunted by his next adventure. A little.
But he doesn’t do all this for fame or glory, he says. He is on a quest to demonstrate that a cognitive or physical disability does not have to consign a person to a life without adventure and meaning. “One of the big challenges for people [with disabilities] is getting unstuck,” he says. “Something happens to them and they crawl into a dark hole, surrounded by a brick wall, and they stay there.”
Having been blind since the age of 13, due to a rare disease called hereditary juvenile retinoschisis, Weihenmayer knows that feeling well. He is practical enough to understand, though, that escaping the so-called “dark hole” is not simply a matter of willpower. So, in 2005, he co-founded a biennial summit called No Barriers, which aims to bring people with disabilities and those developing technologies that can help them achieve their dreams together. The Via Ferrata climb is part of this year’s summit, which is taking place at nearby Mountain Village.
In addition to learning how to navigate craggy rock faces, the 600-odd attendees can take clinics in mountain-biking, paddleboarding, kayaking and fly fishing. These activities, in turn, are aided by such inventions as hand-cranked mountain bikes, a kayak called the Bellyak (which you paddle lying on your belly) and Sidestix (forearm crutches suitable for all terrains). At the extreme end of the spectrum, there’s a headset camera that “translates” images into sensations on the tongue, allowing blind people to “see” in a new way, and a hi-tech exoskeleton that can help the wheelchair-bound walk again.
As he strolls through the main floor of the Telluride Conference Center, Weihenmayer stops and listens attentively as various summit attendees approach him with their own stories of overcoming adversity. Fifteen-year-old Jack Weinstein, for example, who also has retinoschisis, says that nothing has seemed impossible since he learned of Weihenmayer’s adventures. Weinstein adds that he has plans to partake in the upcoming Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon, which includes a swim across the choppy waters of San Francisco Bay, and will dedicate the feat to Weihenmayer. Between these impromptu testimonials, the sharing of which is part of the therapy here at the summit, Weihenmayer tells me more about the mission of No Barriers.
“We’re aiming to help people who are not equipped to get out of that hole, or through or over the brick wall,” he says. “Too often, they look through a rearview mirror at their former life, and they focus on what they had before, and they can’t move forward. They’re stuck.
“We help these people get unstuck through inspiration, sure,” he continues, “but inspiration coupled with tools and skills and new ways of working with people. Those who are stuck need teaching, training, innovation and technological advancements to help them. All the inspiration in the world won’t get Amanda Boxtel out of her wheelchair and up walking—but inspiration plus an exoskeleton will.”